Peruse any national bestselling list and I’ll bet you that somewhere near the top is a thriller of some kind—a psychological thriller, a crime thriller, a legal thriller, a medical thriller, etc. They’re everywhere! There’s an obvious reason for this—thrillers are the perfect (high-octane, fuel injected) vehicle for a few hours of glorious literary escapism from the everyday stress of our lives. Page-turning reads powered by shady characters or circumstances, and more than a few jaw-dropping plot twists; it’s no wonder that readers can’t seem to satisfy their hunger for thrillers by authors like Lee Child, Harlan Coben, James Patterson, and Jeff Abbott.
The utilization of structural components that play a part in making a thriller a thriller has even spread into genre categories like science fiction, fantasy, romance, and mystery. And there’s a reason for this. By constructing your novel to read more like a thriller, you make that novel more of a page-turner—and that is always a good thing.
So, even if you’re not penning a thriller, consider the possibility of adding one or more of these five aspects of a thriller novel to your own writing. I’ll bet if you use even just one component of these elements in your novel (regardless of what category your novel is), it will improve the overall readability of your work.
1. Relentless Tension
Tension is the fuel that powers any good thriller. Without some kind of tension created through conflict, you’ve got an emotionally flat read. Reread your work-in-progress and try to identify all of the sentences that have some kind of tension or conflict, be it external or internal. There should be some level of tension on every page—and I’ve heard multiple writers say that they try to have some kind of tension in every paragraph.
No tension means no real emotional dynamism or connectivity. It means a detached and low energy read.
An indie novel I reviewed years ago, Caged Lightning by Brent Rock Russell, is a great example of how to utilize multiple layers of tension. The thriller revolves around a former Navy SEAL and current San Diego emergency room doctor that becomes entangled in the death of a prominent senator and presidential candidate. The levels of conflict and tension in this novel are extraordinary and make for an undeniable page-turning reading experience. I described it as: “fast, furious, and fun. A perfect read for armchair adrenaline junkies.”
2. Focus on Pacing
Reading a good thriller should be comparable to driving a car with failing brakes down a mountain road laden with curves. When the pacing is breakneck, readers experience a heart-pounding, adrenaline-fueled, edge-of-your-seat read. These kinds of reads are virtually impossible to put down. So how exactly is this breakneck pacing accomplished? While a steady stream of action is an obvious answer, there are a few tricks savvy thriller writers frequently employ. Keeping chapter length relatively short increases readability and keeps the pacing brisk. Also, elite thriller writers always seem to end the majority of chapters with bombshells, be it a powerful statement or shocking revelation or cliffhanger scene. Read any Lee Child novel and you’ll see what I mean. This is a great narrative aspect to focus on as a writer, regardless of the kind of novel you’re penning. What reader is going to put down a novel when a chapter ends with a compelling narrative punch? No one. Nonstop action, shorter chapters, and strong chapter endings collectively mean an increased sense of pacing.
Readers looking for a great example of nonstop action need look no further than Opposable by Kirk E. Hammond—described as “equal parts drug and alcohol-fueled road novel, bizarro science fiction, and apocalyptic thriller”—a novel that is literally 396 pages of pedal-to-the-metal action.
Pacing, and overall readability, is a huge deal when it comes to reading experience. I’ve read 400+ page novels in one marathon sitting and, conversely, some 250-page novels have taken me days to get through because I keep putting them down. Which experience do you think was more enjoyable?
3. Plot Twists
No one likes predictability in their reading fare. Being genuinely surprised with a storyline when a plot twist is well executed is so satisfying to me as a book reviewer. Thrillers are so popular in large part because of these unexpected roller coaster plot twists and turns. By keeping the reader a bit off balance, you create an edge-of-your-seat read where the reader doesn’t quite know what’s coming next.
J.S. Morrison’s brilliant, satirical, science fiction thriller The Perfection of Fish, for example, has an impressively intricate plot that keeps readers on edge throughout. “The Perfection of Fish has numerous plates spinning at any given time, but Morrison manages to never drop one. He weaves a gorgeous tapestry of traumatic survival from the threads of current events and culture wars, lingering on our uniquely American obsessions with gender, race, nationality, and religion.”
4. Identifiable Hero or Heroine
Thrillers often feature main characters that are deeply flawed but still identifiable. Coben’s Run Away, for example, was a thriller that revolved around a Wall Street financial adviser and his pediatrician wife who begin a quest to find their drug-addicted daughter, who ran away months ago. While these two characters certainly had deep character flaws, Coben’s examination into their backstories, dreams, and fears made the parents characters the reader could understand—and ultimately root for. This can be a challenge in some cases as you want to feature fully described characters that come across as real and authentic and not two-dimensional, emotionless cardboard cliches. The trick here isn’t giving your character flaws—it’s making their flaws understandable to the reader.
The main character in Aran Jane’s recently released The Water Column is a great example of a fully realized character with deep flaws that readers ultimately connect with. Lila Piper is a gifted intuitive personal injury investigator who is looking into the suspicious death of a young man. From the BlueInk review: “Readers will find the author’s portrait of Piper authentic and refreshing. The protagonist is seriously flawed, a recovering drug user and prostitute who suffers from deep depression and regularly visits a therapist for hypno-therapy involving meds. Piper’s ultra-insights are a result of her therapist using cutting-edge tech to enhance the brain’s natural capacity, making patients sharper and more intuitive. Piper discovers she’s being manipulated by friends, family and people she meets along her investigation, some who are the root of her neurosis and depression… [Piper] is a thought-provoking character who deserves her own series.”
5. The Dark Side
Thrillers take readers to the dark side of human nature—be it greed, vengeance, addiction, infidelity, etc.—and since most readers aren’t assassins or secret agents or career criminals, these storylines offer readers a chance to vicariously experience highly illegal and/or mortally dangerous situations from the comfort of their comfy reclining chairs.
An Improbable Spy by David Paul Collins is a great recent example of how a healthy dose of dark human nature can make a story so much more interesting. This riveting spy thriller about an American merchant banker drawn into a world of espionage where no one can be trusted is virtually unputdownable. From the BlueInk review: “The writing flows, the characters are engaging, and the passages showing MI6, the CIA, and Mossad deceiving each other to gain an advantage while ‘working together’ are chilling. …this is a brilliantly written espionage tale—as good as it gets.”
Hopefully this blog has given you some things to think about when it comes to your current work-in-progress. Good luck—and keep writing!
Paul Goat Allen has been reviewing books for more than 25 years. In addition to BlueInk Review, his work has appeared with BarnesandNoble.com, The Chicago Tribune, Publishers Weekly, Kirkus, and more. He also teaches in Seton Hill University’s Writing Popular Fiction graduate writing program. Readers of this blog are offered a $50 discount on a BlueInk review by using the “key code” Allen. (This in no way guarantees a review by Allen.)